Building a Community in Oklahoma City
This piece was originally posted in April 2019.
His little sneakers pounded the pavement, green scarf in hand. Smartly dressed in khaki chinos and a Star Wars-branded denim jacket, he loosely held his father’s hand as he excitedly tottered alongside him. He babbled softly. At no more than four years old, his scope of the world is a pinpoint situated at knee height. But as the stadium faded into view, his enthusiastic panting took on a sing-songy tone.
To the world at large, Oklahoma City is known for two things: basketball and a bomb. To most people under 30, OKC is the humble home to Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and the always-exciting Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team. To everyone older, it’s the historic site of the deadliest domestic terror attack in US history.
The soul of OKC sits somewhere in between. It’s more evolutionary than the static picture painted by a nearly 25-year-old tragedy, but it lacks the fury of a Westbrook fast break dunk.
It’s largely slow-walking and slow-talking, with many small-town quirks befitting an oversized old western outpost. Example: many local restaurants, featuring syrupy sweet service and homely plains accents, close early on Saturdays and don’t dare reopen until Monday. And the city’s downtown business district is a ghost town past 8 o’clock any night of the week.
But there’s large-scale optimism for its future. The city has had an entertainment district for only 20 years. And in that time, OKC has picked up roughly 150,000 new inhabitants thanks to cheap rents and Oklahoma’s ever-expanding energy industry. Trendy new restaurants spring up almost overnight, helping keep old staples company as the gears of progress turn around them. After all, OKC is a boomtown at its core; the area famously doubled in population during the 1920s following the expansion of the petroleum industry. The city’s now repeating its history. Just with more boutiques.
And at the center of it all is Oklahoma City Energy FC, a club trying to find its place.
Founded in 2013, the Energy has spent the past several seasons as upper-middle class members of the USL, America’s nominal second tier. While certainly not the most exciting or newsworthy of the US’s non-MLS clubs, the Energy are one of the most consistent in a volatile league.
But consistency is new for Oklahoma City soccer. Throughout the 80s and 90s, four separate indoor and outdoor soccer clubs lived and died on the Oklahoma prairie. Their existences are little more than footnotes in the city’s sporting history, with their names (the Oklahoma City Alliance, Spirit, Slickers, and Warriors) largely existing in obscurity. It’s a tough life for an American soccer club, especially in Oklahoma City, pre-2000s boom.
But unlike their predecessors, the Energy have significant backers in the Oklahoma legislature. For one thing, finding a stadium has never been an issue. The inaugural season was played at OKC’s Bishop McGuiness Catholic High School. Then the team moved into Taft Stadium on the northwest side of town following major city-funded renovations, becoming the stadium’s primary tenants.
The current arrangement is a great deal for the club, but there’s clearly more on the horizon. In early 2019, OKC mayor David Holt submitted a proposal for a 10,000-seat soccer-specific stadium that would cost at least $65 million with the ability to be expanded to 20,000 seats down the road. The goal would be to use the stadium to help land an MLS expansion franchise, which is the crown jewel for mid-sized cities across the US.
The issue? As it stands, Energy games only average 4,300 fans per match. That number is fine by USL standards, but it’s definitely not MLS-ready. There remains a soccer infrastructure to be built in OKC, and local leaders are hopeful one can be built.
When analyzing the Oklahoma City soccer market, one thing always sticks out: its density. Or rather, its lack thereof.
At an estimated 643,000 residents as of 2019, OKC is roughly the equal of England’s Sheffield. A city that loves its two Championship sides, Sheffield packs the stands of its United and Wednesday football clubs to the tune of ~50,000 fans every weekend. And with a population density of around 4,092 people/km2, it’s one of the UK’s denser population centers.
Oklahoma City, by contrast, sits at around 409 people/km2, or a tenth of Sheffield. At 1,610 km2, it’s the US’s ninth-largest city by land area and the world’s 28th-largest. So while OKC has developed several trendy and exciting parts of town that have grown significantly over the last several decades, there’s a ton of empty space between them. Every cluster of boutiques or restaurants is surrounded by an army of empty strip malls and glorified parking lots, with little connecting them besides crumbling infrastructure.
This is what the Energy are up against. Most soccer clubs around the world are ostensibly community organizations, both creating and cultivating neighborly relations. But when a community is so fractured by geography, it’s difficult to nurture that sense of local belonging that makes soccer popular the world over.
It’s something city officials haven’t yet figured out; the new OKC streetcar system that opened in December 2018 (the city’s most reliable public transport by far) doesn’t come within 3.5 miles of Taft Stadium. If the Energy are going to blossom in Oklahoma City, it’s because the community has figured out how to pull together in spite of itself.
Or perhaps, even more audaciously, the Energy become the hub the city so desperately needs.
On an otherwise unremarkable mid-March Saturday, thousands of hopeful Oklahomans filed into Taft Stadium. Green-clad fathers shepherded chaotically-inclined children as scarf-wielding 20-somethings scoped the area for booze. A notable buzz hung in the air.
The stadium’s supporters’ stand wasn’t much of a stand, in all honesty. Because Taft Stadium was originally built for track competitions and high school American football games, the only traditional “stands” were along the home and away sidelines. But noticing a need for a traditional supporters section, Energy officials erected nine rows of temporary bleachers just behind the north goal. And on the night, it was the hottest ticket in town.
It was easy to understand why. For starters, tickets cost at least half as much as the home and away stands. Plus, it was the only section that did any songs or chants during the match, making it easily the most fun place to be during the game. So while the expansive home and away sides sat 40% full for most of the match, the supporter’s stand stayed packed throughout the evening.
Plus, the area behind the stand was arguably just as raucous. Food trucks and makeshift merchandise booths took over the small asphalt plaza. Some fans opted to spend much of their nights in this area, and it’s hard to blame them. The Energy had managed to construct their own mini entertainment district behind the goal.
But what made the night feel special was the feeling of community. Children ran excitedly through the bleachers, with their parents keeping one eye on them and the other on the action. Cheerful cries of “BILL!” or “JASON!” were the norm throughout the night, as old friends joyfully embraced. Local politicians mingled with bearded hipsters, laughing over a beer.
In the center of the stand were the ultras, who sang and chanted on and off for most of the night. All the while, you could clearly see many in the center section trying to figure out how to be an ultra on the fly. Some covered their face with bandanas, likely thinking they looked cool and menacing. Others hurled unserious insults at the opposing players. While it wasn’t quite a European or South American-style display, they were at least playing to type; they don’t call OKC “The Big Friendly” for nothing.
To many, the sporting action was secondary to the social bonding and people-watching in the stands, but the match was quite enjoyable to boot. The Energy’s opponents on the night were the infamous Las Vegas Lights FC, whose absurd kits and affinity for, um, llamas have made them one of American soccer’s most talked-about clubs. But travel in the USL, just like in all other American pro sports leagues, can be brutal. The Lights came from a little over 1,100 miles away to play this fixture. Or, in other terms, roughly the distance from London to Budapest.
Throughout the match, OKC had two clear stars: winger Omar Gordon and striker Deshorn Brown. Gordon in particular was an enjoyable watch; his dribbling down the right flank singlehandedly kept Las Vegas on their heels. But thanks to the organization of the Lights’ defense, Brown got little service for much of the match. He took advantage of his limited opportunities, though, as he coolly finished a breakaway strike for OKC’s opening goal of the night.
The crowd, largely distracted for much of the match, roared as Brown wheeled away in jubilation. Many foreign fans disapprove of American crowds’ passivity during the run of play, but you have to give us this: we know how to celebrate a big moment.
The lead ultra, a tall, wiry 30-something with glasses and moderate stubble, lit a smoke bomb in celebration. The stand cheered the spectacle as green smoke billowed from the first row, then began coughing wildly. Come to find out the bandanas weren’t just for decoration.
The Energy took home the win 2–1 after a late winner by Gordon. As fans poured out of the stadium, there wasn’t a single frown to be found. The win was nice, for certain, but most supporters just wanted to have a lovely night at the stadium. And a lovely night was had by all.
In many ways, the cool late-winter night represented a Disney-fied version of what soccer represents in most locales around the world. Which, in all honesty, is not a bad thing. Many football elitists will point to the unfocused atmosphere, franchise-style ownership, and the USL’s lack of promotion and relegation as evidence of a “lesser” product.
But in Oklahoma City, the sprawliest city in a nation of sprawl, every bit of community-building matters. People don’t necessarily show up for the soccer. But the soccer gives people a reason to show up.
And for a city searching for an identity, that’s a hell of a place to start.